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The Vatican newspaper has betrayed the Pope

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 22, 2010

Pope Benedict has not changed the Church’s teachings, or even intimated that they might be subject to change. The Holy Father has not called for a new debate on the morality of contraception. He has not suggested that condom use might sometimes be morally justifiable.

Yet today millions of people around the world believe that the Pontiff has changed Church teaching, has opened the question of contraception for debate, and has justified condom use in some circumstances. How did that happen?

Yet again, Pope Benedict has been badly served by his public-relations staff. In this case, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano bears most of the blame for a truly disastrous gaffe.

An exciting book project subverted

The stories that are dominating media coverage of the Vatican this week can be traced to an interview in which Pope Benedict XVI responded to questions from the German journalist Peter Seewald. That interview was the basis for an exciting new book, Light of the World, which is due for publication this week.

The book is the 3rd such collaborative effort between the Pope and Seewald. But it is the first since Benedict XVI assumed the Chair of Peter, and the notion that a reigning Pontiff would submit to a book-length interview is a sensation in itself. Readers who expect something very special from such a book will not be disappointed. Light of the World is indeed sensational.

As an interviewer Seewald does his job well. He respectfully but persistently pressed the Pope to explain his thinking on a host of issues, many of them controversial. Pope Benedict, for his part, is candid and lucid, presenting his thoughts with that simple clarity that makes him such a great natural teacher. In Light of the World the reader will find the Pontiff’s honest thoughts on topics such as:

  • the nature of papal infallibility and Petrine authority;
  • the real reason for lifting excommunications on the traditionalist bishops of the Society of St. Pius X;
  • the limits of dialogue with Islam;
  • the possibility of a papal resignation;
  • the message of Fatima;
  • the day-to-day life of the apostolic palace;
  • the true causes of the sex-abuse scandal and the prospects for reform.

On every one of these topics, this reader found the Pope’s remarks refreshingly honest and thought-provoking. The Holy Father offers a number of fascinating revelations, along with an enormous amount of profound theological reflection. The book is, again, sensational.

Those of us who received advance copies of Light of the World were told that the text was under a very strict embargo. We were forbidden to quote from it, cite it, or even make any specific revelations about its content until the formal launch of the book this week. Such embargos are not unusual in the world of publishing (although the publishers were unusually stern about it in this case), and professional journalists routinely honor them.

Then, incredibly, the Vatican’s own newspaper violated the embargo. Betraying the publishers and breaking trust with all the other journalists who were fulfilling their promises, L’Osservatore Romano reproduced a passage from the Pope’s interview. And not just any passage. The Vatican newspaper reproduced—without explanation or comment—a passage in which Pope Benedict reflected on the possibility that in some extreme cases, the impulse to use a condom might show a flickering of unselfishness in a seriously corrupted conscience.

Moreover, L’Osservatore broke the embargo, and published the excerpt, during a weekend when the Vatican was happily distracted by a consistory. At a time when Church leaders should have been celebrating a joyous occasion—the elevation of 24 members to the College of Cardinals—top Vatican officials were scrambling to explain the Pope’s words, which had been published prematurely and outside of their proper context.

The launch of Light of the World should have been another joyful occasion. With appropriate planning, the publisher was poised to introduce the Pope’s book with a major publicity campaign. Now that publicity—which might have offered an accurate and favorable portrayal of the Pope’s book—will be nearly lost in the deluge of misinformation currently sweeping across the world.

What the Pope said—and did not say

Of all the passages that might have been culled out of the book, L’Osservatore Romano chose some speculative remarks by the Pontiff on the subject of condom use. Any capable journalist should have realized in advance that these remarks would be misinterpreted—especially when they were presented out of context.

In the passage that L’Osservatore published, Pope Benedict was not backing away from earlier statements, in which he had said that the distribution of condoms is not the proper way to fight the spread of AIDS. On the contrary, the Pope was defending that stand! Far from retracting his previous words, the Holy Father was explaining and elaborating on them.

In that context, when Seewald pressed him on the question of whether condom use might ever be advisable, the Pope replied:

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

When Seewald asked for a clarification, the Pope quickly added that the Church can never regard condom use as “a real or moral solution.”

Notice that in his hypothetical example, the Pope spoke of a “male prostitute,” presumably involved in homosexual acts. So the question of contraception—the main reason for the Church’s opposition to condoms—was removed from the equation. This prostitute is engaged in profoundly immoral acts. The Pope does not suggest that the use of a condom would make his prostitution less immoral; he says only that by recognizing the imperative to protect his sexual partner, the theoretical prostitute is making a small step toward proper moral reasoning.

Here the Pope was making a theoretical point, not a practical one. He was not teaching, but explaining a point. He was not speaking with authority—in fact, earlier in the book he had explained why nothing the Pope says in an interview should be regarded as authoritative—but speculating. Nothing in what the Pope said, or the way he said it, reflects any change in the Church’s teaching.

In her helpful explanation of the Pope’s words, Janet Smith observed that “the Holy Father is not making a point about whether the use of a condom is contraceptive or even whether it reduces the evil of a homosexual sexual act; again, he is speaking about the psychological state of some who might use condoms.” To place the Pope’s speculative remarks about the male prostitute in the proper context, Smith offered an analogy of her own:

If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it. It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets.

Journalistic incompetence

If it is “not the task of the Church” to give safety tips to bank robbers and homosexual prostitutes, why did the Pope offer that example? In the context of a lengthy conversation, with a sympathetic interviewer, it is easy to see how the Pope might have been tempted toward speculative remarks. But in the weeks between the time of the interview and the date of publication, did no one at the Vatican recognize the likelihood that the Pope’s words would be yanked out of context? Did any authoritative Vatican official vet the text of the interview, to ensure that the Pope’s answers to Seewald were not subject to confusion and/or misinterpretation? If not, then this pontificate is now suffering from another self-inflicted wound. Surely any capable journalist would have recognized the potential for trouble, immediately upon reading the Pope’s words. Anyone alert to the rhythms of everyday public debate would have been able to warn the Pontiff that his subtle distinctions about the morality of condom use would be lost upon the secular media. Jeff Miller makes a witty reference to the “Ginger factor”: the tendency of journalists, when they encounter a mention of “condoms,” to block out all other words. Secular journalists, reading the Pope’s words in the fateful paragraph above, would ask themselves only whether the Pontiff was allowing for the possibility of condom use, and conclude that he was. So inevitably the Pope’s statement would be seen as opening a loophole in Church teaching.

Yet it was the Vatican’s own journalists, at L’Osservatore Romano, who put the Pope’s words in print without any proper introduction, any effort to put the Pontiff’s thoughts in context. The Pope’s statement was bound to stir up trouble; its premature publication in the Vatican newspaper exacerbated the problem.

In past months L’Osservatore Romano has often embarrassed the Vatican, with puerile articles gushing about the merits of Michael Jackson, the Beatles, and The Simpsons. But this editorial blunder is far more serious. With its gross mishandling of this very serious issue, the Vatican newspaper has given rise to a worldwide confusion on a very important moral issue—damage that it may take years of painstaking work to undo.

“Ironically, the message of this good and brilliant Pope has been hobbled nearly as much by the baffling failures of some of his own aides as by unfriendly coverage from the world's media,” writes Archbishop Charles Chaput for First Things. For the welfare of the Church, these public-relations debacles must end.

Why did L’Osservatore Romano violate journalistic norms, ignore obvious dangers, and print a potentially explosive statement out of its proper context? Was the editor hoping to stir up a ruckus, and push sales of Light of the World regardless of the pastoral cost? Was he hoping to stir up a new debate on condom use—something the Pope was quite obviously not seeking? Or was the editor blind to the dangers of publishing this excerpt? Whatever the answer might be, he has demonstrated that his editorial judgment cannot be trusted. As a necessary first step to address the continuous public-relations bungling at the Vatican, Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of L’Osservatore Romano should be asked to resign.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: marttywinston6762 - Nov. 24, 2010 2:02 PM ET USA

    I think there are two ways of teaching. One is to make a flat statement and say, 'This is the truth' and move on. The other is to get people to think about the subject and come to the conclusion of the truth themselves. Pope Benedict has used the second method repeatedly. It causes a lot of heat, but I think the results go deeper.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Nov. 24, 2010 12:45 PM ET USA

    L'OR has an editor who must consider himself indispensable. In the real working world, he would be long gone from that post. How he hurts the Body of Christ!

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Nov. 24, 2010 11:30 AM ET USA

    I have just had a lesson on papal infallibility and the Magisterium with my High School religious ed class. Here's a really good example of how a Pope can be infallible in teaching but (IMHO) needlessly inflammatory in trusting people with subtle ideas. I guess we have another discussion coming up this Sunday. I was hoping to move on. Sigh.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 24, 2010 10:14 AM ET USA

    There has been sympathy for condom use among the clergy and laity for decades. It is difficult to imagine that ignorance or incompetencehad much to do with this. The Church has always exercised due sobriety and prudence with regard to her teachings, and these intimate interviews with the Vicar of Christ somehow seem irregular and unduly risky. The Holy Father is responsible for the preservation and defense of the Deposit of Faith and the salvation of souls; perhaps there is a lesson here.

  • Posted by: stevebrock8157 - Nov. 23, 2010 6:01 PM ET USA

    In a way I find it humorous, how God brings good out of everything. One possible good out of this, is that the discussion of condom use and homosexuality will be brought to the front again, and A LOT of people will be paying attention because of the spin that this anti-catholic person has put on it, only to be properly instructed on what the Church TRULY teaches on the topic.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Nov. 22, 2010 6:42 PM ET USA

    No, not asked to resign, Phil. He should be fired outright. Asking for a resignation is simply too kind to someone who, as Ed Peters pointed out (http://canonlawblog.blogspot.com/2010/11/continuing-mess-at-losservatore-romano.html), has more than once shot the Holy Father and the teaching of the Church in the foot.

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